In some countries, pigs are a lucky symbol and pork is eaten to ring in the New Year. It’s symbolic because pigs root forward while they forage for food (as opposed to cows, which stand still, or chickens, which scratch backwards). Pork, in all forms, is enjoyed by many hoping to embrace the challenges of the coming year.
If you are of Dutch, Danish or of northern European descent, you might be enjoying herring during the Christmas season. Fish are believed to be lucky because their scales resemble coins, and they swim in schools, invoking the idea of abundance. If you’re Dutch, you will most likely eat pickled herring and oliebollen to ring in the New Year. It’s an old tradition.
For centuries, herring have been a dietary staple of northern Europeans, Scandinavians and particularly the Dutch and the Danes. It’s high in Omega-3 fatty acids and lends itself to preservation via pickling, fermentation, drying, and smoking. Pickled herring in particular are popular in Scandinavian, Dutch, Nordic, Polish, Baltic, and Jewish cuisines. The 17th century Dutch poet Voost van den Vondel referred to the fish as “royal herring,” not just for the nourishment the fish provided, but for the flourishing international trade it created. Imports of wood for shipping casks and salt for preserving and exports of pickled herring drove a sizeable portion of European trade.
You could say I’m a connoisseur when it comes to herring. And it’s not only at Christmas and to ring in the New Year that I enjoy herring. I like it all winter. In mid-November, I bought a 20-lb. pail of salted herring. There will be no shortage of pickled herring for family and friends this Christmas season.
A few years ago, I toured California and visited the Danish town of Solvang. Solvang is Danish for “sunny field” and is about 140 miles north of Los Angeles. The town is home to a number of bakeries, restaurants, and merchants offering a taste of Denmark in California. We stopped at a Danish restaurant for lunch and enjoyed an excellent buffet, which included the best tasting herring I’ve had in years. California seafood in places like San Francisco didn’t come close to the herring at the Solvang restaurant.
Recently I read an article that said herring is one of the very best food sources of vitamin D. Our bodies make this vitamin in sunlight, but in our climate, it’s easy not to get enough. Herring is loaded with EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). These fatty acids help prevent heart disease and keep the brain functioning properly.
Preservation of fish has been known and used since the Viking era for more than 1,000 years — salt and vinegar were the base ingredients to preserve fish. The ancient methods of preserving fish included drying, salting, pickling, and smoking – and all of these techniques are still used today.
In the 19th century, people in common households started to marinate herring to obtain a more delicate seafood menu. Marinated or pickled herring is a delicacy in Scandinavia and especially in Denmark and Holland. Initially, herring is cured with salt to extract water. The second stage involves removing the salt and adding flavourings: typically vinegar, water, pickling spices, sugar, onion rings and bay leaves.
Make your own pickled herring. Here’s my way:
Soak the salted herring in cold water up to 24 hours, changing the water numerous times to draw out a lot of the excess salt. Soaking the herring in milk speeds up the process.
Drain the herring, rinse, and pat dry.
Cut off the fins, pull out the backbone but leave the skin on.
Cut the fillets crosswise into 2-inch strips.
In a saucepan, combine the water, vinegar and pickling spice. Some recipes call for sugar, peppercorns and other spices, which I don’t add. Bring the mixture to a boil, remove from the heat and cool the pickling mixture completely.
Sterilize the canning jars and lids in boiling water and cool. Arrange the herring fillets, onion, bay leaves in a glass jar or Mason jar.
Pour the cooled pickling mixture into the jar so that all the ingredients are completely covered with the liquid.
Cover and refrigerate up to 2 days before serving (it will be good refrigerated for 3 to 4 weeks).
10 salted herrings
2 cups water
2 cups white vinegar
Pickling Spice (a few teaspoons will do)
2 red onions, sliced in rings
Maynard van der Galien was five years old when the family immigrated to Canada. He lives near Renfrew, Ont.